3D printing is expected to trigger a revolution in the market, but will lead to major legal issues in the areas of intellectual property, product liability and data protection.

In an interesting article on the blog gCaptain, Brad Hart addresses the following question

Will 3D Printing Change The World As We Know It?

This is not an exaggeration.  It will be potentially possible to recreate any type of item by means of a 3D printer.  And it is already possible to make even my beloved Italian pasta through a 3D Printer.  Unfortunately 3D printers cannot still make better defenders for my football team, but never say never!

Below is my personal podium of legal troubles that 3D printers are exponentially likely to face when they become of more common usage.

1. Is 3D Printing the new piracy?

Copyright breaches through the “piracy” of movies and videos is unfortunately very common.  But if any object can be replicated by means of a 3D Printer, then an impressive “black” market of cloned items might open up.

An interesting article from our DLA Piper colleagues Roberto Valenti and Sofia Barabino addresses the issue.  They stress the fact that in order to copy an object you just need two things: an electronic schematic of the product and a 3D printer. This means that everyone can reproduce a lot of different designs, putting at risk the same notion of intellectual property.

3D printing might infringe intellectual property rights at different stages of the process. Focusing on designs, it is possible to differentiate between 3D Computer-aided design (CAD) files and 3D replicas:

  • the creation of the 3D CAD file replicating the a third party design (e.g. a dress or a bag from a famous fashion designer) might be considered infringing design rights. Also, the dissemination of the file might be considered a contributory infringement of the IP rights involved and
  • the creation, dissemination and offering to the public of the 3D replica risks to be considered an infringement of the design right, except for a private and non-commercial use, for an experimental use and for citations or education uses.

In such scenario, end users risk to be liable as direct infringers, while the sellers and manufacturers of 3D printers might be contributory liable, creating a scenario similar to the one occurred so far in relation to P2P platforms.

But 3D printing might not only lead to the breach of design rights.  CADs and replicas might be protected under copyright, trademark and patent law.  As today any teenager believes to be “cool” illegally downloading a movie, the same might happen in the future with 3D printing replicas.

And the issue is whether intellectual property laws shall catch up with technological developments in order to restrict such practice.

2. Who is liable for products manufactured through 3D printers?

3D printers might – especially in the future – be able to create any possible sort of product including for instance drugs, guns and knifes etc.  Such type of products are subject to a strict certification under applicable laws, but if someone is able to forge his own medicine at home and because of some mistakes in the manufacturing process then gets seriously injured or manufactures an item that blows up in his hands,

Who is liable for that?

Product liability regulations refer to the manufacturer as entity liable for damages arising through the usage of products.  But in a 3D printing scenario when the customer is the actual manufacturer we will have a number of different players

  1. the owner of the printer
  2. the manufacturer/supplier of the printer and
  3. the person that actually created and/or used an untested product.

Courts will decide depending on the circumstances of the case the entity liable for the damages, but 3D printing certainly creates situations that were previously unheard.

3. Are replicas privacy threats?

You will think, Giulio cannot end a blog post without talking about privacy!

And you are right!

An issue that is quite rarely addressed is that CADs and replicas might contain personal data.  Indeed, 3D printers are often used to test surgeries for instance.  In such case the doctor will manufacture a perfect copy of the patient’s organ in order to see whether during the surgery he will encounter any issue.

But do hospitals require patients for a privacy consent to the 3D printing of their organs?  And what happens to that 3D printed organ after the tested surgery? It might be used for research, but might be even made available to third parties that through the information contained therein (e.g. the type of disease affecting the patient) might perform direct marketing activities to his benefit or even change the insurance policy premium.

There are still a number of open questions on 3D printing and, as frequently happened in relation to any new type of technology, legislators and courts might not be fully prepared for them.